The modern workplace has room for neurodivergent employees, says prominent UAE-based human resources consultant Asmara Nomani, who has been passionately advocating inclusion of such candidates in corporate structures
ADHD, now an adult problem too
When you look up the dictionary, you find neurodiversity being explained as “a range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population”. Its lived experience, however, is something else. More often than not, those diagnosed with neurodiversity struggle to reveal the condition because of fear of discrimination at workplace and friend circles. In the former, their soft skills are often judged in comparison to neurotypical employees, which deems them a misfit in the social fabric of a workplace. The silver lining, however, is that the conversation on neurodiversity has matured over the years, and is now part of the larger project of inclusion. Asmara Nomani is a seasoned UAE-based human resources professional, who, through her HR consultancy ANC Global, is making a case for neurodiverse candidates to be considered in corporate workplaces. In a conversation with wknd., she talks at length about what such candidates can bring to the table that organisations can deem beneficial. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What led you to introduce the idea of welcoming neurodiverse candidates in the workplace?
Around 15 years ago, I delved into the realm of neurodiversity in children, exploring topics like inclusive educational support, the structure of Special Needs Assistants, caregiver training, and broader societal acceptance and inclusivity. As a prime caregiver to a loved one, the compelling force behind my advocacy grew stronger. However, my journey as a human resources professional further propelled me to recognise the imperative of including neurodivergent talent in the workforce.
The numbers surrounding neurodiversity, often unreported and undiagnosed, are truly astounding. Statistics indicate that 1 out of 6 individuals fall under the neurodiverse spectrum, encompassing conditions such as ADHD, ASD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia/DCD, Tourette Syndrome, Dyscalculia, Specific Language Impairment, Intellectual Disabilities, Sensory Processing Disorders, and more.
Neurodiverse individuals possess the right to pursue financial independence, while their unique skill sets can profoundly contribute to an organisation’s business success. Having closely observed these individuals, I firmly believe it to be a match made by the forces of the universe —how can we not see it and offer our support? Neurodiverse individuals possess “special abilities” that are acknowledged by many. Research indicates that conditions like autism and dyslexia can bestow remarkable skills in pattern recognition, photographic memory, and mathematics. In terms of intelligence, it is noteworthy that Autism Spectrum Disorder presents higher IQ scores than average or above average, with 44 per cent of individuals scoring above 85 on the IQ scale.
Driven by my passion to make a difference, I seek to align with organisations that recognise this immense potential and are committed to making neurodiversity a fundamental pillar of their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) agenda. Together, we can create workplaces that embrace neurodiversity, celebrate unique talents, and propel organisations towards a future where everyone can thrive and excel.
What kind of jobs are suitable for neurodiverse candidates? How can they be screened for such roles? At a time when soft skills, such as communication, teamplay, empathy, are being given importance, how can we manage our expectations from such employees differently?
From my experience as an HR professional as well as a caregiver for a neurodivergent loved one, there are some key aspects that are essential when exploring neurodivergent candidates and the subsequent jobs they can do. These aspects are empathy, compassion, persistence and looking beyond conventional norms. It’s about recognising that traditional employment structures may not fully capture the diverse abilities and talents they possess. That’s why I encourage thinking outside the box and seeking jobs/positions that align with their specific skills and interests.
With special skills, such as pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics and above average IQ, neurodiverse individuals have the skills and capability to do a plethora of jobs. From analytical roles like data analysis, cybersecurity, software development, quality assurance, research, engineering, mathematics and programming to creative fields, such as graphic design and music composition, the range of opportunities is expansive.
Coming to the topic of screening, I believe that relying solely on traditional interviews may not always reveal their true potential. That’s why we must embrace alternative assessment methods, such as work samples, practical tasks, or trial periods. These approaches allow candidates to showcase their abilities in a way that reflects their true potential and ensures a more accurate evaluation.
Again, through empathy and unconventional thinking, we must acknowledge neurodiverse individuals think and feel differently and, therefore, have different needs. Whether that be sensory overload through overstimulation, difficulty in communication, teamplay, reading emotions and feeling empathetic, or exhibition of challenging eccentricities, neurodiverse individuals require different workplace accommodations to help them truly make an impact.
However, as I said earlier, neurodiverse teams are 30 per cent more productive and make fewer errors, which brings me to my next point, that whilst neurodiverse individuals may face natural challenges in certain areas, it’s crucial to view their differences as strengths rather than limitations. By creating a supportive work environment that values diversity and appreciates different communication styles, we can help bridge any potential gaps.
So, it remains a largely untapped talent pool…
I always give the example of how including women in the workforce was once a discussion point and now, we find ourselves at a different level of discourse. We are striving for greater gender equality and empowering women to take on leadership roles. A similar shift is occurring for other minority groups within the realm of DE&I, although their journeys are at different stages of awareness and inclusion.
Neurodiversity, encompassing approximately 15-20 per cent of the global population, represents an incredible yet largely untapped talent pool. It’s a topic close to my heart. At ANC, we have launched a campaign called ‘Neurodiversity: Tap the untapped’ to raise awareness and champion the inclusion of neurodiverse individuals in the workforce.
From an employment standpoint, the statistics reveal a concerning reality. Neurodiverse individuals, compared to those with physical disabilities, face higher rates of unemployment. Shockingly, the unemployment rate for neurodivergent adults stands at least 30-40 per cent, three times higher than that of individuals with disabilities and eight times higher than those without disabilities.
Neurodiversity adds a unique and complex aspect to the tapestry of diversity and inclusion. It is characterised by its intricacy, subtlety, and often hidden nature. However, within this complexity lies a remarkable advantage: neurodivergent individuals possess inherent differences in thinking that can contribute to novel insights and approaches.
We can look at organisations like Microsoft for inspiration. They have recognised the immense value of neurodivergent individuals and made a deliberate effort to hire them for front-line roles.
What kind of support can a workplace offer to neurodiverse employees?
As a passionate advocate and expert consultant for neurodiversity inclusion, I firmly believe that creating a workplace environment conducive to the growth and success of neurodiverse individuals requires empathy, compassion, persistence, and a willingness to challenge conventional norms. I draw inspiration from industry leaders, such as Microsoft, JP Morgan, EY, Google, SAP, DXC Technology, Ford, and Amazon, who have all taken active steps to embrace neurodiversity in the workplace. Whether championing neurodiversity programmes or revamping existing efforts, there are critical considerations that should guide our actions.
One essential aspect is C-Suite sponsorship. When senior leadership actively supports and champions neurodiversity, it sends a powerful message that the organisation genuinely values and prioritises the inclusion of neurodiverse individuals. This resonates not only within the company but also with external stakeholders, creating a positive and inclusive organisational culture.
Another vital element is neurodiversity awareness training and education. By implementing comprehensive training programmes throughout the organisation, we can cultivate a collective understanding and appreciation of our neurodiverse colleagues. This training is crucial in mitigating the risk of misperceptions and misconceptions among co-workers. It helps prevent the perception of neurodiverse individuals struggling in certain aspects of their roles as lazy or incompetent. Such misinterpretations can create a reluctance among employees to disclose their neurodiversity, fearing negative consequences.
Infrastructural support and creating a work environment that removes barriers for neurodivergent employees, especially those with acute sensory sensitivity, is paramount. We need to reconsider elements such as office lighting, noise levels, and equipment to ensure they accommodate the unique needs of neurodiverse individuals. Avoiding assumptions about preferences regarding workspaces, location, and working hours is crucial, as these preferences may vary greatly.
Strategies for providing comprehensive support and mentorship are essential. In addition to the support of their line managers, employees can greatly benefit from assistance provided by HR professionals, job coaches, vocational support, family members, and external mentors. Companies like SAP and Microsoft have adopted a holistic approach called ‘support circles’. This approach combines internal resources, such as managers, HR professionals, and mentors or buddies, with external support from neurodiversity solution providers, job coaches, and mentors.
How does the UAE fare when it comes to being more inclusive to accommodate neurodiverse employees?
The UAE has made significant progress in fostering inclusivity for employees in recent years. However, there is still much work to be done to fully embrace neurodiversity in the region. Recognising the importance of creating an inclusive workforce that values diversity, including neurodiversity, the government and various organisations in the UAE have taken steps to support this cause.
One of the fundamental pillars of inclusivity in the UAE is the legislative support provided by the government. Laws, such as The UAE Disability Act of 2006, have been instrumental in providing legal protection against discrimination and ensuring accessibility in different areas, including employment. Additionally, the Dubai Government Law No. 2 of 2014 and Resolution No. 43 of 2018 aim to ensure equal opportunities and rights for individuals with disabilities, including those who are neurodiverse.
Additional initiatives have also been taken in the UAE, often involving creating awareness and understanding, and creating supportive work environments that value diversity and inclusion. Moreover, the UAE government, private sector, and non-profit organisations do collaborate to raise awareness about neurodiversity and sensitise employers and employees.
What have been some of the great success stories you have encountered?
Approximately a decade ago, I had the opportunity to come across a remarkable candidate who had ADHD. Despite being diagnosed later in life, this individual openly shared his neurodiversity during the hiring process, demonstrating courage and confidence. It is worth noting that some individuals may choose not to disclose such information due to concerns about potential bias in interviews.
I have been closely following this candidate’s career journey, and I am delighted to share that he has risen to the position of director within the same organisation.
What are the challenges of a neurodiverse workforce?
One of these challenges is the tendency to fit neurodiverse individuals into conventional scenarios — whether it be during the recruitment process or social interactions within the office. This approach fails to acknowledge and accommodate their diverse needs and strengths.
One of the key challenges relates to the growing emphasis on soft skills, such as communication, teamwork, and empathy. Neurodiverse individuals, including those on the autism spectrum, may face difficulties in social interactions. Some individuals may struggle with non-verbal communication, while others find it challenging to interpret emotions or understand figurative language. This can create barriers between neurotypical and neurodiverse colleagues, hindering effective teamwork and collaboration, which are vital for success.
Another significant challenge for neurodiverse individuals in the workplace is their heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli. Bright lights, loud noises, or strong smells can overwhelm and cause anxiety or stress, impairing their ability to concentrate and perform tasks efficiently. To address this challenge, organisations should provide alternative spaces or equipment, such as headphones, to mitigate auditory overstimulation and promote a more comfortable working environment.
Acknowledging and addressing these challenges is crucial for fostering an inclusive and supportive work environment.
What sort of opportunities does neurodiversity present to companies?
By actively including neurodivergent individuals in your workforce, you tap into their unique perspectives and cognitive abilities, propelling your company forward.
Unleashing unconventional thinking is one of the remarkable qualities neurodivergent individuals possess. Their exceptional skills in pattern recognition, attention to detail, memory, and analytical thinking foster a culture of unconventional thinking, innovation, and creativity. By embracing their strengths, companies not only challenge the status quo but also produce solutions that drive business success.
Neurodivergent individuals exhibit enhanced problem-solving abilities in specific cognitive domains, such as logical reasoning, visual thinking, and spatial awareness. Incorporating their strengths augments a company’s problem-solving capabilities, leading to more effective and innovative solutions.
Attention to detail and quality assurance are inherent traits of neurodivergent individuals. Their remarkable focus and attention to detail greatly benefit various domains, from ensuring quality assurance in manufacturing processes to meticulous data analysis in software development. By incorporating neurodivergent talent, companies enhance operational efficiency and minimise costly errors.
If companies truly aspire to incorporate neurodiverse talent into their workforce, they must seek assistance from partners and experts who understand the intricacies associated with neurodiversity.